The celebrated children’s author flew Gloster Gladiators and Hawker Hurricanes for the RAF before he earned fame and fortune as a writer.
Two hefty airmen grunted in unison as they lifted the pilot from the cockpit of his Hawker Hurricane. The flier was not a casualty of war; he had just landed in Greece after almost five acutely uncomfortable hours flying across the Mediterranean from Egypt. While the pilot leaned against the wing, waiting for an excruciating leg cramp to pass, one of the airmen joked: “You oughtn’t to be flying fighters, a chap of your height. What you want is a bloody great bomber where you can stretch your legs out.”
The airman had a point. The pilot was 6 foot 6 inches tall and well built, which meant that he had crammed himself into the Hurricane’s cockpit like a hermit crab in an undersized shell.
It was April 14, 1941, and the young Royal Air Force aviator was Pilot Officer Roald Dahl, better known today as the internationally ac – claimed author of highly imaginative children’s literature such as The Gremlins, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Twits and James and the Giant Peach.
After a delayed start to what would prove a short but intense operational career, Dahl was about to go to war, fighting in a campaign that was effectively over before he arrived. Some 40 years on, he would write of his RAF experiences in Going Solo, published in 1986. Although written around his flying logbook, the autobiography has a number of discrepancies and omissions that, embroidered with hindsight, tend to depict his RAF superiors in an unflattering light, an anti-authoritarian theme that is a signature feature of his children’s books. While this occasionally undermines the objectivity of what is essentially a war memoir, it seldom detracts from the impact of a remarkable story.
Dahl was born in Wales to Norwegian parents on September 13, 1916, and named after polar explorer Roald Amundsen. Educated privately, he joined the Shell Company as a management trainee in 1934. Two years later, Shell sent him to Dar es Salaam in the British colonial territory of Tanganyika (now Tanzania), where he relished the adventurous lifestyle and ventured on regular and sometimes dangerous safaris into the bush. In August 1939, with war approaching, Dahl was conscripted into the King’s African Rifles and given command of a platoon of native askaris charged with rounding up and interning some of the hundreds of local German national residents.
But Dahl had no desire to be a soldier. He wanted to fly with the RAF. So in November 1939 he drove to Nairobi in neighboring Kenya, where he joined 15 other trainee pilots at No. 2 Training Flight, run by civilian instructors from the local Wilson Airways. Thirteen of these young men would die in the air over the next two years.
Most mornings, flying could only begin after the grazing zebras had been chased off the airfield. The trainees then would go aloft in open-cockpit de Havilland Tiger Moth biplanes to learn the basics of the airman’s trade. Although the weather was usually perfect, Nairobi’s 5,500-foot elevation significantly reduced the Moth’s takeoff and climbing performance. For Dahl there was also the problem of his height. When he was in the Moth’s cockpit, perched on a large parachute, his head stuck up well above the tiny windscreen, leading one instructor to comment wryly, “You’ll have a job to breathe.”
Once in the air, almost choked by the slipstream, Dahl could only manage by ducking down into the cockpit every few seconds. Having survived that first flight, however, he discovered that a thin cotton scarf around his nose and mouth enabled him to breathe. Soloing after 7 hours and 40 minutes, he was sent off on basic navigational exercises across the game-filled plains of East Africa. Elated, he wrote: “How many young men, I kept asking myself, were lucky enough to go whizzing and soaring through the sky above a country as beautiful as Kenya. Even the aeroplane and the petrol were free!”
Early in 1940, with about 50 flying hours in their logbooks, Dahl and his fellow trainees traveled by rail to Kampala in Uganda, where an Imperial Airways flying boat was waiting at Lake Victoria to take them to Cairo. From there they were flown to the massive RAF station at Habbaniya (“Have a banana” in RAF slang), near Baghdad, which Dahl described as “a vast assemblage of hangars and Nissen huts and brick bungalows set slap in the middle of a boiling desert.” There they underwent advanced flight training in Hawker Harts and Audaxes, second-line combat aircraft armed with machine guns. “Everything became suddenly more serious,” Dahl remembered. They flew from dawn until 1100 hours, when the temperature in the shade rose to a pounding 115 F.
Dahl qualified for his pilot’s brevet on May 24, 1940, rated “above average.” He was commissioned a pilot officer (second lieutenant) three months later, after further training on Airspeed Oxfords and Fairey Gordons. By then he had more than 156 hours in his logbook and had been awarded a “special distinction.”
By Dahl’s account in Going Solo, he went next to Ismalia, near the Suez Canal, where he learned of his posting to No. 80 Squadron, then flying obsolescent Gloster Gladiator biplane fighters against the Italians in the Western Desert. When a Gladiator was pointed out to him as the aircraft he was expected to fly to his squadron the next day, he asked, “Who will teach me to fly it?” Told by a dismissive flight lieutenant that since there was only one cockpit, he would have to teach himself, Dahl observed, “I remember thinking at the time that this was surely not the right way of doing things.” But in Going Solo he neglected to mention that he had spent the preceding two weeks at Ismalia learning how to handle the Gloster Gauntlet. For all practical purposes, the Gladiator was an improved version of the Gauntlet with an uprated Bristol Mercury engine and an enclosed cockpit.
However well trained, Dahl was about to undergo the painful transition from outstanding flying student to inexperienced squadron pilot—under unusually traumatic circumstances. On September 19, having been ordered to fly his Gladiator to one of No. 80 Squadron’s forward airstrips to the south of the small coastal town of Mersa Matruh, he was told to cross the Nile delta and to refuel at Amiriya, a small airfield near Alexandria. From there he was to fly on for a second refueling at the bomber airfield at Fouka, where the commanding officer would give him the precise location of the forward airstrip. Dahl recalled: “The flight itself was a fairly daunting test for someone with little experience of the aircraft he was flying and none at all of flying long distances over Egypt and Libya with no navigational aids to help him. I had no radio. All I had was a map strapped to one knee.” Nevertheless, he duly arrived at Fouka, where the CO pointed out to him on a map the supposed location of No. 80 Squadron’s forward airstrip, about 30 miles due south of Mersa Matruh, adding, “You can spot it for miles.”
Based on an estimated flight time of 50 minutes, Dahl said he “flew straight to the point where the 80 Squadron airfield should have been. It wasn’t there.” With dusk approaching and his fuel running low, he saw no alternative but to attempt a landing on the boulder-strewn desert below. Coming in slowly, “hanging on the prop,” he throttled back and prayed. Luck deserted him.
The Gladiator’s undercarriage collapsed after hitting a boulder, and it ploughed into the sand at 75 mph, throwing Dahl’s head violently forward against the reflector sight. The impact fractured his skull, smashed his nose, knocked out several teeth and left him temporarily blinded. Somehow he managed to grope his way clear of the burning wreckage before the gasoline tanks and ammunition exploded. Rescued by patrolling British infantry, he spent the next six months recovering in an Alexandria hospital, where he was told he would probably never fly again. An RAF inquiry later revealed that the CO at Fouka had given Dahl the wrong information, and that No. 80 Squadron was actually 50 miles to the south. He had come down in the no man’s land between the British and Italian armies.
By the time Dahl left the hospital in February 1941, No. 80 Squadron had relocated to Greece. Guided by a Bristol Bombay and with a Short Sunderland flying boat in attendance, the men flew across the Mediterranean via Crete. The Gladiators were later replaced by Hurricane Mk. Is, and it was with this far more advanced type that Dahl now had to familiarize himself before flying to join the squadron.
In Going Solo, reprising his introduction to the Gladiator, Dahl claimed he had been allocated only “a couple of days” to master the Hurricane and then fly it direct to Greece. Again a laconic flight lieutenant was on hand to dismiss his concerns. And yet again Dahl failed to mention that after convalescence and an eight-day refresher course at Ismalia, flying Miles Magisters and Gauntlets, he had been sent on a two-week Hurricane conversion course. Not an immense amount of time to come to terms with a monoplane equipped with retractable landing gear and a variable-pitch propeller, but there was a war on.
On April 14, Dahl took off from RAF Abu Sueir in a brand-new Hurricane fitted with extra fuel tanks, heading toward Greece. Of his first ever flight over the sea he recounted: “Bailing out into the Mediterranean didn’t worry me nearly as much as the thought of spending four and a half hours squashed into that tiny metal cockpit…when I sat in a Hurricane I had the posture of an unborn baby in the womb, with my knees almost touching my chin….I wasn’t quite sure I could do it.”
But do it he did, flying 4 hours and 50 minutes to Menidi, where the obliging airmen lifted him bodily from the cockpit in agonies of cramp. Then on to Eleusis, near Athens, 10 minutes’ flying time away. Eleusis was the temporary base of No. 80 Squadron, commanded by Squadron Leader Edward “Tap” Jones (later air chief marshal). Sharing Eleusis was No. 33 Squadron, led by a redoubtable South African, Squadron Leader Marmaduke Thomas St. John “Pat” Pattle, the undisputed “top gun” of the Balkan theater and arguably the RAF’s highest-scoring fighter pilot of WWII, with between 27 and 51 kills.
The campaign in which Dahl now became embroiled as a minor player was a firm demonstration of Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s determination to take the armed struggle against the Axis back onto European soil after the Dunkirk evacuation and the Norwegian debacle. Successes against the Italians in Africa had heartened the British, so that when Benito Mussolini invaded Greece through Albania on October 28, 1940, the moment for decisive action seemed right.
Initially all went well. Within weeks the Italians had been driven out of Greece and Greek forces occupied much of southern Albania. In the air, RAF Vickers Wellingtons, Bristol Blenheims and Gladiators commanded by Air Vice Marshal John D’Albiac had outfought the opposing Italian squadrons. But in March 1941 the abject failure of an Italian counterattack convinced the Germans that they had no option but to come to the aid of their faltering ally (a decision that some historians maintain crucially delayed their invasion of Russia).
By the time Dahl arrived, the Battle of Greece was in its final stages. The dogged Greek and British Commonwealth forces had been overwhelmed by vastly superior numbers of German ground forces, aircraft and armor. For the RAF, the retreat brought depressing reminders of the fall of France. No sooner had the ground crews finished pitching their tents than orders came through to move to yet another makeshift landing ground. Lack of spares tested their improvisational skills to the limit, with maintenance work carried out under the constant threat of strafing by marauding Messerschmitt 109s and 110s operating from airfields in Salonika. Yet the British airmen’s efforts went largely unappreciated by Allied ground forces. Battered by the Luftwaffe and seldom seeing a British plane, they grumbled that RAF stood for “Rare As Fairies.”
If Dahl had been expecting a rapturous welcome at No. 80 Squadron, he was sorely disappointed. Squadron Leader Jones greeted him offhandedly with, “Oh, hello, we’ve been expecting you for some time.” In fairness, the preoccupied Jones was then not just the squadron CO but also acting wing leader and principal fighter controller. In the mess, a crestfallen Dahl noted: “The other pilots in the squadron, all experienced young men who had nearly been killed many times, treated me just as casually as the Squadron-Leader. Formalities did not exist in this place. Pilots came and pilots went. The others hardly noticed my presence.”
Of Pat Pattle, Dahl wrote, “He was a very small man and very soft spoken, and he possessed the deeply wrinkled face of a cat who knew that all of its nine lives had been used up.” He might have added, as other commentators did, that the great fighter tactician was then suffering from acute influenza, a condition Pattle resolutely ignored to lead his usual high number of combat sorties. Between missions, he lay on a couch sweating under a pile of blankets.
Dahl was fortunate to share a tent with Flying Officer David Coke, second son of the Earl of Leicester. Coke had fought in the Battle of Britain with No. 257 Squadron, and he wasted no time in briefing the new arrival on the discouraging realities of the air war over Greece: “We have no radar here and precious little RT….The Greeks are our radar. We have a Greek peasant sitting on the top of every mountain for miles around, and when he spots a bunch of German planes he calls up the Op Room here on a field telephone. That’s our radar.” As for the enemy, he continued: “The bombers you meet will be mostly [Junkers] Ju88s….just about as fast as you and it has a rear-gunner and a front-gunner. The gunners on a Ju88 use incendiary tracer bullets and they aim their guns like they’re aiming a hosepipe….So if you are attacking a Ju88 from astern, make sure you get well below him so the rear-gunner can’t hit you….You have to go for one of his engines.”
Soon Dahl was putting theory into practice. The next day, on his first solo patrol, he gave chase to six Ju-88s bombing shipping near Khalkis. With the sun in his eyes, he shoved the throttle through the gate and charged recklessly after the bombers, forcing them to adopt a defensive formation and fly low toward the sanctuary of the mountains behind Khalkis. Closing to about 200 yards, Dahl suddenly found himself in the sights of all six rear gunners. The mountainous terrain saved him, as he related: “I was just beginning to realise that I had got myself into the worst possible position for an attacking fighter when suddenly the passage between the mountains on either side narrowed and the Ju88s were forced to go into line astern. This meant that only the last one in the line could shoot at me.” Following Coke’s advice, he shot at one of the engines, and “a second later I saw a huge piece of his metal engine-cowling the size of a dinner tray go flying up into the air.” Aghast, he watched as the fatally damaged bomber hurtled earthward trailing black smoke, three crewmen parachuting clear. “I was immensely relieved to see the parachutes,” he wrote, with an airman’s perverse logic.
Dahl’s luck held on April 16 when, with one short, lethal burst from the Hurricane’s eight machine guns, he shot down a Ju-88 that was attempting to bomb an ammunition ship off Khalkis. Misjudging his speed, he dived so steeply that he almost followed the stricken Junkers into the blue waters of the bay. Pulling out, he found the air thick with vengeful Me-109s. “I swear there must have thirty or forty of them within a few hundred yards of me,” he wrote. “It would have been suicide to stay and fight.” Diving flat out for the ground, he fled the scene at 300 mph, leapfrogging his Hurricane over olive trees, stone walls and herds of cows until the 109s abandoned their pursuit.
Dahl’s logbook for this chaotic period is incomplete, showing signs of having been filled in later. Hence the entry for April 18 of one Ju-88 destroyed over Khalkis may be a duplication of the April 16 entry, since Dahl makes no reference to it in Going Solo. But he does mention carrying out two sorties on April 18, although this and subsequent days were “a little blurred in my memory…so that individual victories were hardly noticed or counted.” His logbook indicates he destroyed another Ju-88 over the port of Piraeus on May 19.
On April 20 the decision was made to evacuate all British and Commonwealth forces from Greece. That day also, miles above the fabled Acropolis, Allied and Axis pilots engaged in a massive air combat that came to be known as the Battle of Athens. Earlier, Jones and Pattle had gathered together all the remnants of Nos. 80, 33 and 208 squadrons—15 serviceable Hurricanes in all, including five new machines flown in from Egypt on April 18. Several times that morning the Hurricanes had taken off to harass or drive away the swarms of Luftwaffe aircraft attacking shipping at Piraeus.
When the skies briefly cleared, Jones scheduled an offensive sweep for 1600. The plan was abandoned when news arrived that 100-plus Ju-88s and Dornier Do-17s, escorted by Me-109s and Me-110s, were approaching Athens. While the Luftwaffe bombers concentrated on shipping, the fighters scoured the area for likely ground targets. One strafing Me-110 even appeared over Eleusis just as nine No. 33 Squadron Hurricanes and six from No. 80 Squadron, Dahl’s and Coke’s among them, prepared to scramble. Miraculously, no Hurricanes were hit and, led by the ailing Pattle, they climbed away to 20,000 feet and formed into sections.
The battle was soon joined. Dahl recounted: “Wherever I looked I saw an endless blur of enemy fighters whizzing towards me from every side….I threw my Hurricane around as best I could and whenever a Hun came into my sights, I pressed the button. It was truly the most breathless and in a way the most exhilarating time I’ve ever had in my life….whether I had shot anyone down or even hit any of them I could not say” (gun cameras were not yet installed). He returned to Eleusis soaked in sweat, his ammunition exhausted and the Hurricane peppered with holes.
Pattle was killed in that fight, shot down by an Me-110 while he himself was shooting an Me-110 off the tail of Flight Lt. William “Timber” Woods’ blazing Hurricane. Woods, who in June 1940 was one of the pilots of the three legendary Gladiators Faith, Hope and Charity defending embattled Malta, also died. Greek sources claimed that 22 German aircraft were shot down (later revised to eight destroyed), while the RAF lost five Hurricanes with most of the others damaged. From that point on, the Luftwaffe could do pretty much what it pleased.
The next day, between raids by strafing German fighters, the remains of the RAF contingent relocated to the rough airstrip at Megara, then to Argos. From there the surviving Hurricanes tried to protect the Allied evacuation fleet from swarming Ju-88s and Ju-87 Stukas. In the meantime, Dahl had been ordered by Air Commodore John Grigson, commanding the withdrawal, to fly a sealed package to Eleusis to hand to a stay-behind agent named Carter.
Dahl portrays Grigson as a slightly comic figure, but at Argos he entered RAF folklore for one of the most extraordinary acts of defiance in the campaign. As described in Wings Over Olympus, Grigson was seen “standing in the centre of the field with rifle to shoulder. An aircraftman loaded for him, and they stood there as calmly as if they were on the grouse moors, while the 109s fairly plastered the place.”
On April 24, after the most experienced pilots had flown the five surviving Hurricanes to Crete, Dahl and the remaining pilots were evacuated to Egypt in a Lockheed Hudson of No. 267 Squadron. Greece surrendered on April 27. Meanwhile, RAF Blenheims and Sunderlands ran a shuttle service to Crete, cramming men into their turrets and bomb bays, and in one instance squeezing six into a Sunderland’s lavatory. Despite the air and sea evacuations, some 14,000 British servicemen were captured.
Dahl and Coke joined the reconstituted No. 80 Squadron in Haifa, Palestine, in late May 1941, taking part in operations against the pro-Nazi Vichy French in Lebanon and Syria and helping to defend the Royal Navy against attacks by Luftwaffe Ju-88s. Dahl damaged a French Potez 63 on June 9 and shot down a Ju-88 off Sidon on June 15. He made his last operational flight on June 23. A series of disabling headaches (attributed to the Gladiator crash) had made it unsafe for him to continue flying. At the time he was invalided back to England, his logbook recorded a total of 264 hours and 55 minutes. Roald Dahl’s short but eventful flying career was over, and he apparently never flew as a pilot again. His friend David Coke was killed in action in December 1941.
April 1942 found Dahl at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., as an assistant air attaché. There he met author C.S. Forester, who encouraged him to write about his wartime experiences. The result was a story loosely based on the Gladiator crash, originally titled “A Piece of Cake,” which appeared in The Saturday Evening Post under the misleading headline “Shot Down in Libya” (in Going Solo Dahl stressed that this was an editorial substitution and not a title of his choosing). Soon after, Dahl wrote his first children’s book, The Gremlins (1943), about the mischievous creatures that supposedly plagued the RAF’s aircraft during the Battle of Britain. It was originally intended as the screenplay for a Disney film that was never produced. By one suspect account, it was also part of a plan by British intelligence to gain American public sympathy and support for the British war effort.
The Gremlins rumor probably had its origins in Dahl’s involvement in Washington with the shadowy British Security Coordination, headed by Canadian spymaster William Stephenson. In this role Dahl gained privileged access to the top echelons of American political life, including President Franklin Roosevelt. In Stephenson’s biography, A Man Called Intrepid, Dahl is cited as saying: “I was able to ask pointed questions and get equally pointed replies because, theoretically, I was a no body….Bleeding this information on the highest level from the Americans was not for nefarious purposes, but for the war effort.” As Dahl prepared to return home, Stephenson wrote him, “Your contribution to our activities must, by any count, be regarded as one of particular significance and nature, and I am certain your work will prove of lasting worth.” But in Jennet Conant’s recent book The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington, Dahl is re – cast as a prototypal Agent 007, a seducer who cut a swath through “the drawing-rooms—and bedrooms—of the rich and powerful.”
Fighter pilot, war hero, spy: Not a bad launching pad for any writer. Dahl died in Great Missenden, England, on November 23, 1990. To date more than 100 million copies of his books have been sold.
Frequent contributor Derek O’Connor wishes to thank Jane Branfield at the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre in Buckinghamshire, U.K., for her help in researching this article. For further reading, try: Going Solo, by Roald Dahl; Wings Over Olympus, by T.H. Wisdom; and Ace of Aces, by E.C.R. Baker.
Originally published in the January 2009 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.